Why I Begin With Education, Not Anger, as a Disability Advocate

As a disability community, we go through a quagmire of things most people never have to deal with when it comes to our physical and mental health. I understand. I really and truly do. But I’ve noticed something I want to talk about. Can we please stop acting like the able community should know everything about our conditions from the moment they meet us? Can we stop jumping down their throats when they unintentionally say something in a way we don’t like, or do something they don’t know they shouldn’t be doing? How are people supposed to learn what is appropriate and what helps us when we choose to yell and scream rather than to educate?

The Oxford dictionaries online describe advocacy as: public support for or recommendation of a particular cause or policy.

Surely that means that in order to advocate something we have to educate, not scream at people. Talk to people about our conditions. Explain to them what we or our loved ones can and cannot do. Recommend what steps they can take to ensure they are treating us fairly. If they ignore us, then by all means take additional steps, but let’s avoid getting offended when someone we’re meeting for the first time doesn’t know that loud noises can harm our mental health, or we can walk a few steps but need a wheelchair most of the time. I know I’ve been guilty of these things in the past myself, but in the same way I don’t want to be judged, I’m trying not to judge those around me anymore.

I’ve had friends ask me why disabled people get offended when they use certain language or they don’t respond to someone in a particular way, and I’ve sat with them and asked these simple questions:

  1. Has that person explained their condition to you?
  2. Have you asked them why they are offended?

You’d be surprised how many times the answer to both of these questions is no. The onus isn’t on the able-bodied person to know every detail of a disabled person’s disability, but it is on them to ask why. It’s important that those of us with disabilities talk to our able bodied and neurotypical counterparts about our conditions, and advise them of any particular behaviors, language, or situations that can be problematic for us.

You’ll also notice I’m avoiding the word “trigger” here. The reason being is that although I myself have C-PTSD, and I do struggle with flashback and anxiety triggers, not everything is a trigger. I feel the word gets overused in today’s society, often by people who don’t understand it, and I’m choosing to make a point of using alternative language. I encourage my friends without mental health issues/disabilities to do so also.

Sometimes we have a right to get angry, but sometimes I believe we need to understand that the able-bodied world doesn’t automatically understand us. Not through lack of trying, but through lack of knowledge. We can help them fill in those gaps. We can help them understand that autistic people don’t sense the world in the way they do. We can help them recognize the need for more accessible spaces (and not just for wheelchairs). We can show them the errors in judgment in supposed “wheelchair friendly” spaces where there isn’t enough room to move anything but the smallest of manual adult wheelchairs. It’s possible for us to talk about ableist language without raising our voices, and with common courtesy and respect. It often goes across a lot better.

As a community we want better standards of living. But in order to gain them we need to make ourselves heard, and if we want to make ourselves heard, wouldn’t starting with a little bit of politeness and understanding go a long way?

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